Baltimore Orioles enter third season of rebuild still trying to grow at major-league level

NATHAN RUIZ
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Baltimore Orioles manager Brandon Hyde stands on the dugout steps during a spring training exhibition baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, Fla., Monday, March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

As the Baltimore Orioles embark on the third full season of their organization-wide rebuild, signs of progress are apparent. But many have yet to reach Camden Yards.

Under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, Baltimore’s farm system has grown into one almost universally considered among the game’s 10 best. The club’s first extensive dive into the international market and a series of trades have added young talent in areas that were previously bereft. The “elite talent pipeline” Elias promised to build is well under construction.

Yet in Brandon Hyde’s two years as manager, the major league team remains a work in progress. In 2019, the Orioles lost 108 games, finishing with baseball’s second-worst record. The 2020 season, shortened to 60 games because of the coronavirus pandemic, saw the club flirt with a postseason berth into the campaign’s final week only to still land a top-five draft pick.

“We’ve made strides,” Hyde said. “This is now our third year. I thought we got better last year from the year before in a lot of areas. I thought our players improved, and I’m looking to have that happen again this year.”

Reasons for hope: Hyde’s lineup has lost three of its most significant members, as the team traded shortstop José Iglesias and released infielders Hanser Alberto and Renato Núñez. But 2021 will also feature the return of Trey Mancini, an All-Star candidate in 2019 who missed last season recovering from Stage 3 colon cancer, and Baltimore can hope for full seasons from Anthony Santander, who followed Mancini in earning Most Valuable Oriole honors in 2020, and Ryan Mountcastle, their No. 5 prospect who shined after a midseason promotion.

Mountcastle arrived in a wave of debuts, and more are to come. Pitchers Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann — a Loyola Blakefield product — each had highlights in their end-of-the-season stints. Like them, Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells could be taking turns behind 2019 All-Star John Means in the Orioles’ rotation by season’s end.

Yusniel Diaz, who like Kremer was acquired in the July 2018 trade that sent Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers and jump-started Baltimore’s rebuild, and Ryan McKenna join Mountcastle in a collection of young outfielders. The members who have already reached Baltimore, a group that also features Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart, have had their ups and downs at the major league level, and Hyde said it’s on him and his staff to help smooth those out.

“We need our players that we have here to get better,” he said. “Our jobs as coaches is to develop these players. It’s not the easiest thing at the major league level, as well as playing the schedule that we have. Playing the schedule that we play [in the American League East], for me, it’s the ultimate competition in really evaluating what we have.”

Prospects looming: The Orioles were the AL’s winningest team from 2012-16, but former slugger Chris Davis and his behemoth contract are the vestiges of that era. Baltimore hopes the pending arrivals of prospects, led by 2019 first overall pick Adley Rutschman, can guide them back to such heights, but in the meantime, the rebuild marches on.

“I want to win as much as anybody else,” Hyde said. “It really hurts to lose, but I feel like we did improve last year, we did get more competitive.

“We’re getting more talented and a little bit more athletic, but we’re pretty young. We have a lot of growing to do still, and our job is to try to get these guys better as quickly as we possibly can.”